On the latest episode of Louie, Louis CK, bumbling feminist dad and comedy darling, assaults a woman. He overpowers her, tries to take off her clothes. He attempts to rape her, and tells her “You said you wanted to do something with me…I don’t believe that the ship has sailed.” She lets him kiss her while pressed against a door, with no way to extricate herself from his grasp. The expression on her face is unmistakably one of revulsion and fear as he tells her “I’m going to take control and I’m going to make something happen.” When the kiss is over, she mumbles “Thanks”, and flees, while he pumps his fist in the air.
This is the penultimate scene of the episode: the final shot is of Louis looking after his daughters on a bus – a painful contrast to the violence that has come before.
Nihil novi sub sole, runs the Latin expression. ‘Nothing new under the sun.’ Sexual assault is hardly groundbreaking territory for television. Rape is backstory. Jenny Schecter on The L Word struggles with the trauma of a childhood rape. Rape is drama. Buffy Summers is almost raped by her vampire boyfriend without a soul, Spike. Rape is plot point. It crops up in Downton Abbey to further the storyline, to make it more complex, to heighten the conflict between the main characters. Rape is crudely used to demarcate the villains (Joan’s doctor fiancé on Mad Men, the Dothraki on Game of Thrones, Fitz’s father on Scandal) and humanize the survivors. And yet the sexual violence in entertainment media feels so arbitrarily assigned that there are moments when I can almost believe in the fiction of a writers’ room so dry of ideas that someone spins a pencil and lands on ‘Character Gets Raped’.
Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment, I say as I slip into the skin of a privileged white man on the Internet. Rape is frighteningly common. Why not reflect that in art? No-one’s saying that Louis CK condones rape. Feminism is an important part of his persona, after all. This is the comedian’s comedian, the thinking man’s entertainer, the man who points out the uncomfortable truth that “Men are the number one threat to women today.” To ask him to not address sexual assault would amount to censorship, bleat the crowd of fanboys who assure you that you just “don’t get the subtlety, the nuance” of X scene.
You’re left to wonder, who does get it? Perhaps only the men who don’t understand the feeling of unease as you, a woman, walk to your car in a dimly-lit parking garage, keys in your fist to form the flimsiest of weapons.
If I asked you what the primary purpose of popular media was, I’d wager you would tell me it was ‘to entertain.’ There’s nothing entertaining about rape, I say (even as Salon excuses Louie by writing that the assault was “funny in fragments”). Therefore, we move on to the secondary purpose: to reflect reality, to instruct, to inform. There’s the odd rape scene in which you feel the writer is moved by a blistering compulsion to make you feel the horror of it, to render you unable to avert your eyes. The writer of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson, witnessed a woman being gangraped in his native Sweden. Years later, he worked out his anxieties in a scene that makes the viewer shudder with its brutality. There is no ambiguity in the scene where the piggish Advokat Bjurman rapes Lisbeth Salander; no question as to the author’s condemnation of the act that is taking place. Although it is undoubtedly possible to question the utility of depicting violence so-violently- it is near-impossible to claim that such a scene propagates rape culture. It is reminiscent of rape-revenge movies, the B-genre of horror that is often derisively called ‘torture porn’ because it makes its young women suffer intensely before they are allowed to exact their bloody vengeance. However, as a survivor, that kind of movie often has a very therapeutic effect on me: it grants me and others the catharsis that real life has denied us. The B-movie has its uses.
But most portrayals of assault in television and movies are neither realistic nor useful. Instead, they propagate dangerous myths: she wanted it even though she started off saying no (Straw Dogs, Gone With The Wind, Game of Thrones). It’s not real rape if there was no physical struggle (Three, Pretty Little Liars). Silence means consent (Girls, The Mindy Project).
Rape in popular media lingers in a gray area that is not really gray, and afterwards there’s no real discussion of whether it was rape or not. Imagine if Mad Men had called Joan’s rape what it was. Perhaps someone watching, somewhere, would be better able to understand that what had happened to them was rape. Perhaps they would understand that freezing up was a common survival instinct that did not mean they were to blame. Instead, all we got was an unsatisfactory “You’re not a good man, and you know why” from Joan much later in the show: a reminder of an incident that might easily be erased from the viewer’s memory by that point; a refusal to call it rape. Similarly, on Pretty Little Liars (a show that is aimed toward a largely YA demographic), 16-year-old Aria begins a sexual relationship with her English teacher, Fitz. Once her parents find out, they condemn Fitz, but at no point does the show address statutory rape laws or even portray the relationship as undesirable. The word ‘rape’ may be shocking, but the unwillingness of people to call rape ‘rape’ explains in part why Jezebel didn’t report Chris Brown as having been a rape survivor, it explains in part why David Choe was shocked at the suggestion that he’d raped his masseuse (when it was clear from his own account that he had). Rape is a big bad word, and nobody wants to say it.
Consider that Louis CK’s character is meant to be the sad, relatable schlump, a good man – in which light I ask, why write that scene? It’s already frighteningly easy for men to sympathize with rapists. It’s easy for men to come forward in the wake of Dylan Farrow’s allegations and remind us that they’re only allegations. Men are already afraid because they buy into the myth of false-rape reporting, and so they seek solace in the idea that unless there is concrete evidence – semen, hair, videotape – that there is no rape. When you have the hero of a show like Louie commit assault, it becomes that much harder to accept that what happened was assault, and so one struggles to rationalize, one struggles to come up with ways in which it wasn’t. That’s what men are doing right now – rationalizing this episode on Vulture, on The AV Club, on the blogs and thinkpieces spawned by that episode. They are saying things like “he was asserting himself”, “to call this rape is to be overly PC”, “maybe he did press too hard but that was it.” It’s the same way that men talked of the many scenes in Breaking Bad when Walt forces himself on Skyler – as him “dominating his woman” or “being an alpha male.” Same reason that a Youtube video in which Don Draper grabs a woman by the hair and forces his hand inside her is described “Don Draper solves a problem.” There’s nothing satirical or edgy here. Rape has been given a pass for centuries, and literature, music, movies, media isn’t challenging that in the ways that it could be, only normalizing it. Nothing new under the sun.